On a cool night in early November, Muffin Shew left work at the Robinson's department store in Paradise Valley Mall, like she always did, shortly after 9 p.m.

She drove her big, old silver T-bird with the same sense of purpose with which she lived her life, barreling down the street, aiming toward the driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac where she lived alone.

Occasionally, Muffin would tend the plants in her front yard, but was generally clad in large Jackie O-style sunglasses and straw hat with a sash tied neatly under her chin.

Muffin had been a long-running mystery to the residents of Presidio Road near the mall for more than 15 years. She came and went without event or conversation. There was no visiting, no tools borrowed, no chitchat in the yard. No one watered the plants or brought in the mail when Muffin was gone, nor did she do that for anyone else. She never asked anyone for a ride or a hand. In fact, she became enraged at her brother when he spoke to one of the neighbors during a visit three years ago.

They generally saw only the garage door closing behind her or the birds she fed regularly flying away from the backyard.

Once inside that November night, she traded her signature tailored outfit for the comfortable clothes--and white sneakers with pink trim--of her private world.

She turned on the television and had the sort of dinner a lot of people would consider a snack. She probably fixed herself some tea, too, because the British-born Muffin always had tea.

The front door and the gate were both locked, just like always. But, for some reason, on that night, Muffin went out the sliding glass door into the backyard. Maybe she saw someone. Maybe she heard something. Maybe Pumpkin, the orange cat, was in some kind of predicament.

No one really knows.
Muffin was a petite fireball, in better shape than women much younger than her 62 years. She had a no-nonsense style that left no room for question. But while Muffin was fearless, people say, she was not foolish.

The last person to see her alive may have come from out of the dark. Maybe it was a happenstance meeting with a trespasser, or with someone she had known from the past.

Muffin struggled, but was no match. No one heard her scream. The assailant hit her face and broke her ribs and then finally strangled the life out of Muffin with the very clothes that had made her private world more comfortable.

And then he left, apparently without taking anything from Muffin's house.
In a matter of minutes, the very complicated life of Muffin Shew was reduced to a humble, violent end.

Officially, Muffin was a dedicated employee who juggled part-time work at the Phoenix Central Library and at Robinson's. She had also spent years as a tireless volunteer with organizations like the Center Against Sexual Assault. She was outspoken and fought vehemently for anything she believed in, regardless of how seemingly trivial. She adopted political causes and worked on campaigns.

To some who knew her, Muffin was a retired British government agent, maybe even a spy. To others, she was a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. Some even heard she had a mysterious foreign lover. Muffin spun exciting yarns about international intrigue and adventure, about involvement in top government affairs and of moving with the rich and famous.

There is no evidence to support most of the tales of Muffin's mysterious past. And, there is no evidence to refute some of them.

She was not afraid, but acted as though she was in danger.
Maybe her death was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe something from the past finally caught up with Muffin. Or maybe it was simply a random act of violence against a woman alone.

There were no pictures, no plants, no personal trinkets on Muffin's desk at the library. She never mentioned her plans for the holidays or vacations, except to talk about weekend trysts with her anonymous suitor.

The one thing, maybe the only thing, that is eminently clear is that someone murdered Muffin Shew. And the circumstances surrounding her death are as mysterious as the life she led.

The woman guarded her privacy like a bulldog, which has led some of the people closest to her to wonder who she really was.

Muffin hated her given name, which was Mary Jane, according to her former husband.

She grew up with three or four siblings in a three-bedroom flat in an industrial city somewhere north of London. The home did not have indoor plumbing until long after she left. In her youth, she spent afternoons at the movies and visited Tyrone Power's grave after coming to America.

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Lisa Davis